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What is Culture in a Multicultural Company?








David Kertzner and Jeffer Daykin
September 4, 2019


At a recent Seattle Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) event “Creating Culture,” three panelists representing a healthcare company and two technology companies discussed some compelling efforts their organizations were making to develop a successful corporate culture. The presentations were inspiring and opened the door to other important considerations.

They outlined the value of developing flexible and responsive feedback loops and described their organizations’ application of analytics and sophisticated internal social media tools to better understand and empower their employees. For engaging and encouraging a corporate community, one panelist described their initiative in which any colleague can nominate another to receive a cash bonus for going ‘above-and-beyond’ and shared how employees excitedly volunteer to lead internal training courses in areas of personal interest. Again, very inspiring stuff.

A challenge remarked on by all, however, was the dynamic of a single corporate culture that includes, within it, socio- and geographic cultural groups that maintain well-established values, norms and behaviors that are understandably different from the more singular culture that the organization is trying to foster. 

In our many years of providing English-language communication training for global clients, we have seen firsthand how company values (reflecting company culture) can be experienced and engaged with differently depending on the culture(s) of origin of individuals and teams. 

While leading two trainings for a major global e-marketing and technology company, first at their offices in Silicon Valley and then in Japan with a team of engineers and dev/ops folks, we observed the leadership principle of “customer obsession,” for example, engendering very different reactions. 

In Silicon Valley, the engineers and QA managers consistently referenced this principle during our work when discussing significant decisions they made. In contrast, the group trained in Japan barely mentioned the phrase in 85 hours of small group and one-on-one training. When it did come up, it seemed most unremarkable as such an approach to business is overwhelmingly the norm in famously customer-obsessed Japan.

For another of this company’s leadership principles, the explicitly stated expectation for employees to speak candidly and be vocally self-critical—“even when doing so is awkward and embarrassing”— was apparently much harder to realize among those steeped in Japanese culture where “face” is an important consideration and there is a presumption of greater social distance in hierarchy than what those reared in Silicon Valley would perceive.

Leveraging Corporate Culture to Bridge Culture Gaps

In one critical sense, the attempt to form a distinct corporate culture has advantages for global companies. It requires all employees, regardless of their culture of origin, to adopt new, presumably better ways of working and interacting. While this process will likely identify gaps in understanding of ‘own’ and ‘company’ culture, some simple language and communication training activities can bridge these gaps, resulting in improved workflow and relationships among international teams and among native and non-native English speakers. Here are three ideas:

  • Hold a monthly leadership principles coffee break in which global team members from different cultures are paired—either in person or by video conference—to discuss what a given company principle means to them. Recognizing and sharing the variability in how one might interpret particular vocabulary is important to make explicit for your teams of both native and non-native English speakers.

  • Create a StoryCorps, similar to the work of NPR in which members of the organization interview each other about their experience adapting to the particular company culture. Which principles have been the hardest to adapt to? What strategies have you used? Are there aspects of your own culture that you’ve referred to when making the shift? The interviews could get recorded and posted, establishing for all that challenges in adapting to the company’s culture is a common experience and that ideas from a range of different cultures can help inform the enterprise’s common endeavor.

  • Host a ‘Cultural Think Tank’ in which intercultural teams can brainstorm possible steps to address challenges in realizing the company culture overall. Here's a link to our version of this activity which we have used with repeated success with international teams.

All three of these approaches could have a positive impact on bridging the gap for multicultural organizations and teams. By establishing that the company culture itself is distinct from that of the host country or other cultural identities, the challenge shifts from being one of “helping non-native English speakers and other employees adapt” to “supporting all in better understanding both their colleagues and themselves.” How exciting and inspiring a way that would be to frame the work of company culture!



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